“A neo-fascist,” Carl Bernstein called Donald Trump on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday.
He wanted to make sure, though, we all understood fully that the “neo” in the word meant “new”: a “new kind of fascist dealing with an authoritarian, demagogue point of view” with “the nativist, anti-immigrant, racism and bigotry he appeals to.”
Journalist Stephen Brill (founder of Court TV) was on the same TV panel about the seismic effect of the Trump campaign on the news business. He said that what was needed was constant and exhaustive fact-checking. Bernstein disagreed that facts sufficed. He wanted cable news especially to find a broader historical context.
“I think we need to look at the past,” he said. Because Trump’s is “a kind of American Fascism we haven’t seen before. [It’s] different from George Wallace, who was merely a racist. This goes to authoritarianism, it goes to [a] despotism point of view and the desire for a strong man who doesn’t trust the institutions and the democracy of government. … It is something very foreign to our political culture.”
Later in the day, I found online the “Inside Edition” interview with 78-year-old John McGraw, who sucker-punched a black protester at a Trump rally on camera. McGraw explained chillingly to an interviewer that he was glad he treated the demonstrator that way because “he’s not acting like an American.” He said casually, “Next time we see him we may have to kill him.”
In media coverage of this year’s presidential campaign, there are a couple of ideas I am seeing in geometrically increasing quantity:
• Worry that the rising violence at rallies will begin to truly endanger and, in fact, take lives. A man rushed Trump onstage in Dayton, Ohio, and was flattened by the Secret Service.
• The memories of those with historical perspective – like me – about how this election is reminiscent of 1968 in its division of America into two combative and unappeasable views of what it means to be “American.” It was “us” vs. “them” everywhere you went back then. I hated it at the time. I’m no fonder of it now.
The year 1968 was ugly and vile – and fatal to one great man and one who might have been great. When the year ended, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been murdered and Richard Nixon had been elected president.
The George Wallace third-party presidential campaign that Bernstein mentioned constantly arises in the memory of the living for one simple reason: It found a surprising seedbed in the previously inchoate anger of some of the people who now vociferously support Trump.
My wife and I braved a Wallace rally in Memorial Auditorium in 1968 to try to understand why northerners responded positively to a recalcitrant segregationist.
We had just gotten married a few months before. We lived in the Grant-Delavan area long before anyone had any ideas about gentrification. It was a tough, struggling working class neighborhood. One of our neighbors came to our door one day collecting signatures to get Wallace on the ballot. We didn’t want to be rude to our neighbor so we just said we weren’t signing any political petitions at all. Any response less neighborly would have been awful.
Why? Because this was the same woman who, on a frigid winter morning, rushed out of her house wearing nothing but a nightgown and housecoat and helped me move my Ford Fairlane, the worst car I ever owned, out of the snow.
Our neighbor raced out of her house in rubber boots with her trusty pail of road salt. She threw it under the right tires and proceeded to push me out. It was as selfless and neighborly a thing as anyone has ever done for me.
She’s the one who wanted our signatures for Wallace. She’s why we went to the rally – to try to understand what she saw.
We indeed saw it – with horror and sorrow both.
It was downright decorous compared to Trump’s Saturday Night rally in Kansas City, when all three major cable news outlets ran it for huge chunks of time.
It’s Us. vs. Them Redux.
Are those audiences the same people who push neighbors out of the snow on frigid winter mornings? I don’t know. I’m sure some of them are.
If so, it’s the very worst thing I can say about this political year, which has been horrifying enough. I just don’t want to see the return of 1968 “us” vs “them” – not when we should be seeing only “us.”